Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma. The scenes with Johnson are some of the weakest a generally fine movie, badly written, perfunctorily staged, and, on Wilkinson’s part, unconvincingly played. Click on the photo to see how much more interesting and dramatic looking the reality was.
As I was saying Saturday, David Oyelowo didn’t have the same advantages playing Martin Luther King in Selma that Daniel Day-Lewis had playing Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln. In particular, for several reasons, Day-Lewis was given a better script. But he also had a stronger supporting cast. Oyelowo didn’t have a second male lead, a female lead, or a true supporting actor to work with and against. There is no equal to him in talent and no equal or near-equal to his character in terms of dramatic effect or historical importance, which seems like a strange thing to say about a movie that includes Lyndon Baines Johnson as a major character. But that’s the point. Selma’s LBJ is a weak character. I don’t mean that Johnson is shown to be a weak person. I mean Tom Wilkinson’s performance is weak. There’ve been complaints that the movie gets the historical President Johnson wrong. It does and it doesn’t. Wilkinson gets the human being Lyndon wrong and that results in the impression that the history’s all wrong.
Let me start by saying this doesn’t make Selma anything less than an effective and affecting movie. I’m not bothered by the historical inaccuracies, most of which are minor by the standards of Hollywood historical dramas and defensible cases of poetic license. Johnson’s place in history and reputation will take care of themselves, Maureen Dowd’s fretting and Joseph Califano’s indignation notwithstanding. I was bothered more while I was watching the movie and obviously still am in thinking about it since by the artistic and dramatic weaknesses caused by Oyelowo’s being left by his screenwriter, his director, and his castmates to carry too much of the story along on his own.
There are movies that work as essentially one-person shows. A main point of those movies is watching the lead actor deliver what amounts to an extended soliloquy. (Because movies are visual mediums, actors can soliloquize without saying a word.) Wild is that kind of movie and Reese Witherspoon delivers that sort of extended visual soliloquy beautifully. But Wild is the story of what’s going on in a single individual’s heart and head. I thought what was wrong with The Imitation Game was it treated World War II as Alan Turing’s personal problem and left Benedict Cumberbatch alone too often to soliloquize visually and verbally, the result being way too much Cumberbatch. (I know. I know. As if there could be such a thing as too much Cumberbatch.) This isn’t what happens to Selma. But it happens too often within Selma. And it’s more the case that instead of there being too much David Oyelowo, there’s not enough anybody else. Oyelowo is often trying to interact with actors who just aren’t there in the way he needs them to be. This is mainly due to poor writing---those actors’ parts are underwritten, even hardly written---but it’s also due, at least in one case, to egregious miscasting.
One of the measures of an actor’s performance is the effect he (and his character) have on other actors (and their characters). Good acting is interacting. Characters are defined by their reactions as much as or more than by their actions. So what does a good actor do when he doesn’t have enough to react to in a given scene? He can try too hard to overcompensate---that is, ham it up---or he can muddle through and hope things will get better in the next scene. Wisely, Oyelowo muddles through those scenes. But the effect of his performance is weakened because of that.
Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t have that problem in Lincoln. He was never left on his own to muddle through.
He had a superb supporting cast given brilliantly written characters to play. Just for starters: he had Sally Field and his Lincoln had Mary Todd Lincoln. He had the undersung David Strathairn’s brilliant William Seward. Most advantageous of all he had Tommy Lee Jones chewing up the scenery all around him and gobbling up other actors for dessert.
Together the three of them combine to help define Day-Lewis’ Lincoln by limiting his performance, counter-balancing it, and placing it into a broader and deeper dramatic context. Their performances are as much a part of Day-Lewis’ as his make-up, speech inflections, and beat-up carpet slippers.
Carmen Ejogo is excellent in Selma but she has the same problem playing Coretta Scott King as Oyelowo had playing Martin and screenwriter Paul Webb had the same problem writing her part as he had writing Oyelowo’s: a public memory that had to be carefully respected. And historical fact was a problem. Coretta King just wasn’t on the scene for most of the events depicted in the film and she wasn’t much involved in the day to day happenings even to the degree she could have been from a distance if her husband had allowed it. That he kept her at a distance, geographically and emotionally, was a source of friction in the marriage but because she wasn’t on the spot that friction could not made as big a part of the story as the frictions in the Lincolns’ marriage could be in Lincoln. Mary Lincoln would have been involved in the daily life of the President during that time frame. We don’t know how much she was involved but we know she would have involved herself more than necessary and more than Lincoln would have liked and we can be pretty sure how she’d have done it. She was a difficult personality and the ways she was difficult are well-documented. And she was self-dramatizing. Coretta Scott King was self-effacing. She kept herself in check. Mary Lincoln never did that. This makes her easier to write and easier to play or at any rate easier to figure out how to play.
David Strathairn’s William Seward is a problem for himself, that is Seward has to solve the problem of being William Seward working for Abraham Lincoln: he’s a rival who might have been President himself and who has to remind himself that, talented as he is himself, the better man won. That doesn’t make him deferential. Seward challenges Lincoln and forces him to explain himself. He’s Lincoln’s foil. But that’s in the script. What Strathairn does is make us see that Seward needs to know what Lincoln’s thinking so he knows what to do. He lets us see Seward thinking, working his way through a problem, doubting, making up his mind, and deciding or postponing a decision. He turns the dialogs between Lincoln and Seward into conversation so that Day-Lewis seems to be explaining himself to him and not just talking for the audience’s benefit. Then, just as important, he provides the warmth of real affection. Lincoln and Seward come across as good friends not just through the intensity of Strathairn’s focus on Day-Lewis but also because of the way Strathairn makes Day-Lewis focus on him.
The character in Selma who might have been used as Lincoln uses Seward, Colman Domingo’s Ralph Abernathy is inexplicably underwritten, leaving Domingo little to do but look supportive. André Holland’s Andrew Young is even more underwritten and underused. Wendell Pierce as Hosea Williams, on his own, without help from the script, brings a stronger presence to the screen than either Domingo or Holland but he’s more often seen apart from King and his best scene is with the very fine Stephen James as the very young John Lewis whose own scenes with King are pure exposition with little dramatic intensity. The closest Oyelowo has to a real foil is the relatively minor character James Forman, played by the talented, visually compelling, and quite possibly destined for stardom Trai Byers who looks like a young Dwayne Johnson who can truly act.
Then there’s Tommy Lee Jones.
Day-Lewis is able to take his Lincoln to the point of caricature because Jones is there blasting apart the very notion of caricature. His Thaddeus Stevens is a man who happily, gleefully, energetically, and triumphantly caricatures himself. This is something the real Abraham Lincoln did himself. It’s something successful charismatic politicians and leaders do and have always done. Martin Luther King did it. Almost by himself Jones creates within Lincoln a world where that makes sense because it works. In the process, he makes Day-Lewis’s Lincoln’s self-caricaturing look subtle.
The character who could have and should have done that in Selma is of course Lyndon Johnson.
Tom Wilkinson, a fine actor, is wrong for the part to begin with but then he takes an entirely wrong approach to the part. He doesn’t play Johnson as the brilliant but somewhat mad self-caricaturist he was. Which means he doesn’t play him realistically. He doesn’t play Johnson at all. He plays a man named Lyndon Johnson with some of Johnson’s attributes but none of his fire and little of his essential madness who happens to have been President of the Untied States in 1965 instead of the LBJ we know from history. He doesn’t even seem to be trying to suggest the real Lyndon Johnson. The accent is wrong. The timbre of his voice, his inflections, the rhythms of his speech are all Wilkinson’s inventions. He doesn’t even swear convincingly. It doesn’t help that the dialog’s terrible. Webb hasn’t written a line for him that sounds like it might have come out of LBJ’s mouth. But Wilkinson doesn’t capture Johnson’s mannerisms, expressions, or body language either. Wilkinson doesn’t look like Lyndon Johnson, but an actor doesn’t have to look like someone to look like that someone. Bill Murray doesn’t really look much like Franklin Roosevelt but he captured the spirit of FDR. There’s little I saw of the spirit of LBJ in Wilkinson’s Johnson. In fact, I saw more of what Tom Watson saw. The spirit of Richard Nixon.
At times I wondered if Wilkinson, who is British, had researched the wrong American President.
Mostly it was in the hunched-shouldered, chin-tucked in, defensive posture Wilkinson adopted. Johnson was one of our two tallest Presidents, as tall as Lincoln, six feet four, taller than George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (Quick: who were the next three the tallest, all six-two?), and he used his height and his heft to intimidate people. Weirdly, Wilkinson, who is a pretty big guy, six foot one, often looks as though he’s trying to make himself appear shorter.
And because Wilkinson’s Johnson isn’t as powerful or passionate a personality as the real LBJ, he doesn’t come across as the powerful and passionate champion of Civil Rights that the real LBJ was.
I think the critical indignation at the way Selma portrays Johnson boils down to the charge that it shows him to be a reluctant supporter of Civil Rights. It doesn’t. It portrays him as a reluctant supporter of the Voting Rights Act or, rather, of trying to get it passed at that particular point in his administration. This wasn’t true, exactly. The Voting Rights Act, however, was only one of Johnson’s legislative priorities at the time and he did have to make politically expedient calculations in order to advance his agenda. Selma shows that although with perhaps too much emphasis. But it also portrays Johnson as opposed to the march from Selma to Montgomery, for personal and politically expedient reasons, and that’s not true. Still, what is true is that white liberal politicians were often too cautious and too slow to get behind things Civil Rights leaders like King were trying to do and they weren’t enthusiastic about letting the movement set its own goals and decide its own strategies and devise its own tactics. This was true of Eisenhower and Kennedy, maybe a little less true of Johnson but only because things had come so far by the time he became President. So I didn’t feel as though Johnson was being maligned by Selma on this score so much as used to make a valid point. I think that if he’d been portrayed as a personality more like he really was, it would have been easier to let this pass. Anyway, in the end he’s given his historical due.
The movie also portrays him as feeling ambivalent about Martin Luther King both as a person and as a political ally. This strikes me as very true. Johnson was an egomaniac. He did not like it when anyone challenged him on anything. And he was reflexively, intrinsically manipulative, conniving, opportunistic, and bullying. King did not let himself be manipulated or become any politician’s opportunity and he would not be bullied. So of course he frustrated and infuriated and even confused Johnson from time to time and it would have been natural for some of Johnson’s frustration with King to spill over into frustration with the whole movement. Riled up, I’m sure he sometimes sounded as if he wished King would go to hell and take the problem of Civil Rights with him. The problem in Selma is that Wilkinson’s Johnson doesn’t sound as angry as the real Johnson would have nor is he nearly as creative in his anger. Like I said, he doesn’t swear convincingly.
The real libel of Johnson comes in a scene in which Johnson conspires with J. Edgar Hoover to blackmail King into cancelling the march.
That didn’t happen.
At least, I don’t believe it did. Have to be careful. A tape might turn up tomorrow proving it did. But for now as far as I know there is no evidence that it did and, even speculatively, there’s no good reason to think that it did.
And, again, I’m more bothered by the artistic mistake here than any historical fabricating because the fabrication is forced by the mistake, which was to include Hoover in the movie.
It’s true that Hoover was perversely obsessed with Martin Luther King and that he had the FBI spying on King and many other Civil Rights leaders and activists. But he was perversely obsessed with lots of people and had the FBI spying through every keyhole he could muster agents enough to peep through. And he didn’t need Presidents to tell him to do this. He didn’t need Presidents to tell him to do anything. What he did was do things and then defy Presidents to order him to stop.
The scene between Hoover and Johnson could have been written and played to show this. My point is, though, that the scene shouldn’t have been in there at all. It’s simply more history than the movie can carry and needs to carry.
In order for a scene in which the director of the FBI tells the President of the United States he’s going to blackmail an American citizen with tapes of that citizen having sex with women who are not his wife and the President sits there and says nothing or orders him not to while seriously doubting the order will be obeyed to make sense, there’d have to be a whole lot more of Hoover and his story. And Hoover’s story is part of a much larger story that encompasses the Red Scare, Prohibition, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement. Selma isn’t even trying to tell the whole history of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s focused, to good purpose and effect, on one particular moment in that history. Hoover’s involvement in that moment was tangential. It would have been enough to show that King and his inner circle were aware Hoover and the FBI were working against them. Hoover himself could have been left offscreen and the scene between him and Johnson wouldn’t have been missed.
Of course Johnson knew what Hoover was up to generally and he could have ordered him to cut it out. He could have and should have fired him. So could have and should have every other President from Franklin Roosevelt up to Richard Nixon who did try to get rid of him, although for the wrong reason. But to get down to it at last, Selma would have been a better movie with a better Lyndon Johnson and David Oyelowo’s Martin King would have been better seen as the achievement it is. It’s what I’ve been saying here all along. The historical inaccuracies don’t matter to me as much as the way the script, the directing, and the casting let Oyelowo down.
Had things been otherwise, I think the excellence of Oyelowo’s performance would have been a lot harder to overlook when it came time to make the nominations for the Academy Awards and people wouldn’t be talking now about how Oyelowo was snubbed in not being nominated. We’d be talking a month from now about whether he was snubbed in losing the Oscar to Eddie Redmayne.
Speaking of Hoover, Dylan Baker is as miscast and misdirected as Hoover as Wilkinson is as Johnson. Baker doesn’t look anything like Hoover but that wouldn’t have been a problem if he’d acted like Hoover. (By the way, to see what I mean by this, watch what Baker does as Robert McNamara in Thirteen Days. For that matter, watch what Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp do as John and Robert Kennedy.) I had a similar reaction to Tim Roth as George Wallace. There wasn’t a moment when I felt I was looking at the real George Wallace. And I find it odd that a movie built around a realistic portrait of Martin Luther King features three good actors playing Lyndon Johnson, J.Edgar Hoover, and George Wallace as if they were guest stars on The West Wing.
To further confound things, Nigel Thatch appears in a too brief cameo as Malcolm X not just creating a realistic portrait of Malcolm but seeming to have been possessed by him.
Something else. At one point in the pre-production, Lee Daniels was set to direct Selma, which I’m not sure would have been that bad a thing, although I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been as good as thing has having Ava DuVernay behind the camera, and I mean that more as a compliment to DuVarnay than a criticism of Daniels. But, interestingly, Daniels’ The Butler features a much better and in a real way more realistic Lyndon Johnson. It’s more of a cartoon than a caricature, let alone a realistic portrait, but Liev Schreiber gets at the essential Johnson. He looks like Johnson to a degree more than looking like him without looking like him. Some of that’s make up. Most of it’s Schreiber. He moves like Johnson. He gets the expressions right. And he sounds like Johnson. His dialog is better written too, even though it’s basically comic. In fact, the comedy helps because it conveys the weird attractiveness of Johnson’s madness. Schreiber’s playing a caricature of a caricature but it wouldn’t have taken much adjustment for him to have turned his cartoon of LBJ into a portrait as realistic as Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King and I would have liked to have seen the two of them together. Maybe it’d have come off as too much of a gimmick, but I think Schreiber would have brought the power and passion Wilkinson’s Johnson lacks, and in doing that he’d have helped make Selma an even better movie in several ways including giving Oyelowo someone of equal strength to play off of. He’d have done for Selma at least some of what Tommy Lee Jones did for Lincoln.
Thinking about that, though, imagine what a trip it would have been had Jones been cast as LBJ.
Final thought: The supporting cast of Lincoln offers Daniel Day-Lewis more challenges than just the ones from Jones, Field, and Strathairn. There’s Jared Harris’ Ulysses Grant, Joseph Gordon-Levitz’s Robert Lincoln, Hal Holbrook’s Preston Blair, Bruce McGill’s Edwin Stanton, and James Spader’s wily political operative W.N. Bilbo. Strong character actors fight to take our attention away from Day-Lewis throughout the film but the first challenge comes in Day-Lewis’ very first scene in which an African American soldier puts Lincoln on the spot concerning the unequal treatment of black federal troops. Lincoln slyly tries to put him off by employing his folksy charm and then he shifts his attention to a couple of white soldiers who are more amenable to being charmed. But the solider won’t let him get away with it. He insists on his presence, throwing Lincoln’s own words in his face by reciting the Gettysburg Address. That soldier is played by…David Oyelowo.
For more on the criticisms of Selma’s treatment of Johnson, see Amy Davidson’s post at the New Yorker, Why “Selma” Is More Than Fair to L.B.J.